The Playground of the US-Russia Struggle: Ukraine

Thanks to the intense efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Trilateral Contact Group, the ceasefire agreement signed between Ukraine and Russia on July 27, 2020, has managed to reduce the risk of hot conflict between Ukraine and Russia for a long time, despite various violations. However, the increasing tension in Donbass in the last period has shown that the ceasefire has become ineffective. In fact, on March 26, 2021, four Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives due to the attacks of the proxy elements used by Russia with the hybrid warfare. Accordingly, the tension in the region increased, the Ukrainian Army mobilized and war drums beat to action.[1]

Considering the developments in the Kiev-Moscow line, it can be suggested that Russia has implemented an aggressive policy against Ukraine. Because Moscow perceives the geopolitical preferences of Ukraine, which is a sovereign and independent state, as a threat to its own security, it tries to limit the willpower of Kiev by acting against international law. At this point, it is necessary to mention the past of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia.

In 2013, after the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych vetoed the EU Association Agreement in which Ukraine turned to the European Union (EU), the protests known as the “Euromaidan” took place, and the Ukrainian society was de facto divided into two as pro-Western and Russian supporters.

Because of these protests, the possibility of a “color revolution” in Ukraine came to minds and the influence of the supporters of the West in the country increased. Considering this situation as a threat to its national security, Russia annexed Crimea on March 16, 2014 in violation of international law. Similarly, in Donetsk and Luhansk, it was observed that the pro-Russian parties were trying to establish a new state by leaving Ukraine. Even though these territories are within the legal borders of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk signed a merger agreement on May 24, 2014 and attempted to establish a state called “Novorossiya.” Thus, the Kiev administration faced the situation of not being able to manage these regions where pro-Russian groups are located. Indeed, all these developments can be interpreted as Moscow punishing Kiev that turns towards the West.

Russia regards the increase of Western influence in the post-Soviet geography, which it sees as its immediate surroundings, as a threat to its national security. It is possible to see this situation in the developments in Ukraine. Moscow perceives Ukraine’s orientation towards the West as its containment over the Black Sea. The main reason for this situation is that Bulgaria and Romania, which were in the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2007.

Moscow gave a clear message in the face of the membership of these states and stated that the last country where NATO can move east within the borders of the former Eastern Bloc was Bulgaria. In parallel with this, when Western tendencies became evident in Georgia in 2008, it was observed that Russia intervened in the situation with the Russo-Georgian War that lasted for five days. Therefore, Moscow does not like having pro-Western people in power in its immediate surroundings.

Moreover, Russia interprets the membership of Bulgaria and Romania to NATO along with Turkey that the Black Sea is becoming a “NATO lake.” Therefore, it has revealed that it would not allow Ukraine to turn towards NATO at the geopolitical level. In fact, the annexation of Crimea can be interpreted within this framework.

The aggressive policy adopted by Russia, currently wanting to limit Ukraine’s orientation towards the West, creates a security dilemma between the parties. Because of Moscow’s policies, Kiev, feeling that its territorial integrity is in danger, expresses louder every day that it wants to become a member of NATO. Ukraine needs a security umbrella. In fact, in parallel with the increasing tension in the region since March 26, 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested NATO to prepare a membership plan and stated that this would be a real response to Russia.[2]

It is possible to argue that Ukraine is right with its security-themed sensitivities. Even though Russia stated that it was carrying out its military exercises in the region within its own territory, there is a troop buildup near the Donbass region. In this regard, there are serious claims that Russia deployed 28 battalions in the region.[3] This situation indicates that Moscow is preparing for an operation specific to Donbass.

In essence, Russia has been trying to turn the West’s pressure on itself into an opportunity. In other words, after Joe Biden became the President of the United States of America (USA), the Washington administration, wanting to repair the damage in Trans-Atlantic relations during the Donald Trump period, targeted Russia, the traditional other of the West. It is possible to observe that Moscow is rapidly being isolated with the support given to Nikol Pashinyan, whom Moscow wants to remove from power in Armenia, the protests in Russia following the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the expulsion of Russian diplomats from various European countries and the sanctions against Russia.

Russia, which is under immense pressure, is preparing to give a harsh response through Ukraine to prevent measures to be taken against itself in the Black Sea geopolitics. That is why it is possible that Russia would start a military operation against Donbass. Moreover, it can be predicted that such an operation would not be limited to Donbass. In short, Russia would want to reach Odessa by turning the Ukrainian tension into a geopolitical opportunity. This could be an important gain for the Kremlin’s goal of reaching Trans-Dniester in the future. Indeed, Moscow would have the opportunity to test whether NATO could risk a war with Russia for Ukraine through such a strategy. It can be argued that unless the West appease Russia with the Ukrainian Crisis, Moscow will be more courageous on the Trans-Dniester and perhaps on the other issues in the upcoming process.

Thus, the U.S. wants to repair its relations with European countries by using its opposition to Russia effectively. For this reason, it can be argued that Washington is trying to confront the EU and Russia through the Ukrainian Crisis. However, EU countries are much more cautious regarding this. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin held an online meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 30, 2021, and at the meeting, Merkel clearly stated that they did not want a war in the region. Moreover, Macron emphasized the need to maintain the ceasefire and establish regional stability.[4] Despite this, Zelensky declared that they received assurances from the United States in case of a possible Russian intervention and said, “At the meeting, President Biden once again reiterated the full support of the United States against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the light of Russia’s aggressive moves in Donbass and Crimea.”[5]

Moreover, Zelensky’s statement that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass” is also an indication of the “NATO umbrella” of Biden’s assurance. The U.S. wishes to convince Europe again in terms of hegemonic relations and to confront Europe and Russia on the Ukrainian Crisis. Therefore, it can be suggested that the White House wants war.

To conclude, Ukraine stands out as the playground of the power struggle between Washington and Moscow at a time when the U.S. is looking for ways to maintain its global hegemony in the context of the anti-Russia front by convincing the EU. In such environment, Kremlin, wanting to test whether the West could risk a war with Russia and showing that it would not allow to be surrounded by the Black Sea, is preparing to carry out an operation on the Donbass-Odessa line. On the other hand, Washington seems pleased with the increasing tension in the region and encourages Kiev against Moscow in order to bring the EU and Russia against each other. In the current situation, even though the leading actors of the EU such as Germany and France have declared that they do not want war and call for a ceasefire, it is highly likely that they will act together with NATO in such case. However, time will tell how the process will proceed.


[1] “U.S. Watching Escalation of Armed Confrontation near Ukraine’s Border with Russia”, CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-troops-ukraine-border-concerning-united-states/, (Date of Accession: 10.04.2021).

[2] “Ukrayna NATO’ya Üye Olmak İstiyor”, Deutsche Welle, https://www.dw.com/tr/ukrayna-natoya-%C3%BCye-olmak-istiyor/a-57107717, (Date of Accession: 09.04.2021)

[3] Talha Yavuz, “5 Soruda Rusya-Ukrayna Krizi”, Anadolu Ajansı, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/5-soruda-rusya-ukrayna-krizi/2203164, (Date of Accession: 10.04.2021).

[4] “Merkel, Macron Call on Putin to Help Stabilize Situation in Eastern Ukraine”, Ukrinform, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-polytics/3218459-merkel-macron-call-on-putin-to-help-stabilize-situation-in-eastern-ukraine.html, (Date of Accession: 10.04.2021).

[5] “Donbass’da Yükselen Gerginlik ABD’den Ukrayna’ya Destek”, Milli Gazete, https://www.milligazete.com.tr/haber/6887564/donbassda-yukselen-gerginlik-abdden-ukraynaya-destek, (Date of Accession: 10.04.2021).

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